According to the mainstream press, it's the year of the blog. And in many ways that's absolutely true. To name just one example, political blogs are making an impact beyond just providing the kind of thoughtful commentary no longer found on screaming-head talk shows; arguably blogs helped to keep the Trent "We Would Have All Been Better Off" Lott scandal alive until he resigned as Majority Leader of the United States Senate; Howard Dean, candidate for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, has used his blog as a means to inform, organize and raise significant funds; and we can read Andrew Sullivan and Tom Tomorrow exchanging witty quips as if they were at a virtual table at a virtual Algonquin Hotel.
There are two issues of interest to explore here. First, why are blogs with significantly smaller audiences than webcomics having an exponentially larger impact on popular culture? Second, why are blogs doing a much better job of building community and drawing attention to other worthy blogs than webcomics?
Measuring Audience Shares
The answers to the first issue are ultimately highly subjective, but may in part have something to do with the answers to the second issue. A purely speculative answer may be that the perception amongst the public at large is that webcomics are to comics as blogs are to newspapers and magazines: although webcomics may equal or surpass blog audience numbers, comics are traditionally viewed as a niche medium, and not a significant piece of the larger media landscape.
It is interesting to note that in terms of actual website audience, blogs probably do not exceed the audience reach of webcomics. A blog called Truth Laid Bear uses Site Meter to provide information on average visitors per day for most blogs and generates a list of the most visited blogs. A snapshot of the list on July 29th provides the following statistics:
1) Instapundit 72520 visits/day
2) Daily Kos/Political State Report 24648 visits/day
3) Eschaton (Atrios) 21714 visits/day
4) Gizmodo : The Gadgets Weblog 13238 visits/day
5) The Volokh Conspiracy 11305 visits/day
6) Tom Tomorrow 10850 visits/day
7) filchyboy 9016 visits/day
8) CalPundit 7536 visits/day
9) L.T. Smash: Live From The Sandbox 6053 visits/day
10) Scrappleface 5900 visits/day
11) Blogathon 2002 5082 visits/day
12) Rachel Lucas 4326 visits/day
13) The Command Post 4175 visits/day
14) CommandPost Op-Ed 4175 visits/day
15) War Blog Corner 4175 visits/day
Setting aside for a moment any concerns as to the accuracy of Site Meter (or similar services like Extreme Tracker); even just a quick glance at the webcomics on our Most Read list for July with publicly available visitor statistics, there is some evidence that the top webcomics overall may actually have larger audiences than the top blogs. Sinfest, at number six on the Most Read list, appears to be averaging 30,000 visitors a day in recent periods, which supports a reasonable assumption that the five higher-ranked webcomics on the Most Read list: Penny Arcade, Megatokyo, Player VS Player, 8 Bit Theater, and Exploding Dog, all receive more than 30,000 visitors per day on average. In addition, as an experiment, we ran a combination of last monthâ€™s Most Read List for webcomics with the top fifteen blogs from the Truth Laid Bear List through the Traffic Ranking statistics site. Measured by either page views or visits, webcomics took 9 of the top 10 spots.
The point of this discussion is not so much to pit webcomics against blogs, but rather to point out that blogs, even with similar audience numbers to webcomics, have managed to gain a disproportionately larger amount of attention from the mainstream relative to webcomics. There may be useful lessons for the webcomics community to learn from the "blogosphere."
Measuring Community Reputation
Blogs by and large do not focus on audience numbers, rather what the blogging community tends to value is measuring the relationships between blogs through links into and out of blogs. This approach is facilitated by blogging software, such as Moveable Type, that automatically identifies other sites that link into a blog. Moreover, there are several sites dedicated to measuring which blogs have the most links into a particular blog, both for the overall site and in regard to individual posts or entries made to a blog. This approach is useful because like Googleâ€™s search algorithm, it elevates webpages that are linked to by lots of other webpages, allowing the collective wisdom of participating blogs to direct readers to interesting content.
Blogdex, a project of the MIT Media Laboratory, bills itself as the Blog Diffusion Index and attempts to measure the spread of ideas through the "blogosphere." For example, a recent number one entry on the Blogdex list was Son of Napster: One Possible Future for a Music Business That Must Inevitably Change by Robert Cringely. The Blogdex website explains:
Blogdex uses the links made by webloggers as a proxy to the things they are talking about. Webloggers typically contextualize their writing with hypertext links which act as markers for the subjects they are discussing. These markers are like tags placed on wild animals, allowing Blogdex to track a piece of conversation as it moves from weblog to weblog. Blogdex crawls all of the weblogs in its database every time they are updated and collects the links that have been made since the last time it was updated. The system then looks across all weblogs and generates a list of fastest spreading ideas.
Daypop is a current events search engine that indexes over 35,000 news sites and blogs every day. The Daypop Top 40 is a list of links that are currently popular with bloggers around the world. Each entry on the list is assigned a score and the list indicates whether that link's score is increasing or decreasing. For example, on the same day that Robert Cringely's Son of Napster column was at the top of the Blogdex list it was number 3 on Daypop. Daypop also has a Top Blog Posts list which is described as a list "for following the most popular weblogging posts that are making the rounds in the blogging world."
Daypop also has a Top Blogs List which ranks Blogs based on their Daypop Score. The Daypop website explains that high Daypop Scoring blogs confer more weight or importance to blogs that they link to. "One way to think about it: a blog's score is proportional to the probability that a blog reader randomly hopping from blog to blog will hit that blog." Interestingly enough, the one webcomic website on the Daypop list is Penny Arcade. Tycho's news posts essentially form a blog, and according to Daypop, Tycho's linkage at the end of July counts for more than Andrew Sullivan's, Howard Dean's or Dave Barry's â€“ since at number 11 on the list, Penny Arcade is ranked higher than many other more well-known blogs such as these.
Popdex is very similar to Daypop and computes a score for blogs based on the popularity of the linking site. So, if websites A and B are extremely popular, and link to site C, then site C is given more weight in the rankings than a site linked to by sites with smaller numbers of inbound links. At the top of Popdex's list, not surprisingly, is Robert Cringely's Son of Napster column.
All of these sites â€“ Blogdex, Daypop, and Popdex â€“ rely on frequent crawls of indexed websites to evaluate links into and out of sites. They rely on and build on the hyperlinked nature of blog entries and conversation threads from blog to blog to blog and back again. There is no similar construct available to the webcomic community. Webcomics do not lend themselves easily to hyperlinks, and the time and effort required for the creation of most webcomics preclude the more casual nature and frantic pace of many blog entries.
The basic idea of looking globally at links into and out of webcomic websites, however, would provide a way to rank the reputational value of individual webcomics, and provide an interesting way to identify potentially overlooked webcomics that are otherwise still well thought of by their peers. This idea would require some method to take all of the "link lists" that are so common on individual webcomic websites, and determine which webcomics are actually being linked to the most by the webcomic community in aggregate. It would also be useful if, like Popdex, links from webcomics with higher reputational values were weighted higher than those with lower reputational values.
This is the kind of tool the blogging community has been keen to develop and adopt but the webcomic community has not. One possible tool that could be ripe for webcomics to leverage for building an index of webcomic to webcomic links is Blogrolling. Blogrolling is a link management service that allows you to set up a list of links via a web interface. Beyond the convenience of updating your list of webcomic links from anywhere (See mine for example) this site generates a top 100 list of links based on the links users include in their "blogrolls." Although it would be even more useful if Blogrolling set up a separate service for webcomics, even the existing Blogrolling service, if used by a significant portion of webcomics for their "link lists" might provide useful "reputational" information for webcomics (The basic blogrolling service is free).
Another interesting tool that could be infiltrated by webcomics is Blogshares, which hosts a "simulated, fantasy stock market for weblogs where players invest fictional money to buy stocks and bonds in an artificial economy where attention is the commodity and weblogs are the companies." In other words, blogs are valued by their incoming links from other known blogs. It's free to register and upon doing so you receive a virtual $500 to invest. Blogshares uses the virtual "stock price" of blogs to create a Top 100 list. A hot tip: Penny Arcade is number 62 with 5000 blogshares available at $3,713.25 each.
There are probably additional, interesting blog tools already out there that are not discussed in this article, and surely more are to come. Comixpedia views as part of its mission an effort to find better and more valuable methods of directing readers to the new, the interesting and the overlooked in webcomics and we will continue to investigate new and better ways to provide that information. We welcome your suggestions and comments.
Xaviar Xerexes is the Publisher and Executive Editor for News.